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Can Restoring the Jordan River Build Peace in the Holy Land?

Christians explore how ecological work can support the gospel mission.
Can Restoring the Jordan River Build Peace in the Holy Land?
Image: Christopher-Sprake / iStock / Getty

The first time Joel Kelling saw the Jordan River, on a 2010 Oxford Brookes University field trip, he was stunned. He was one of only two Christians in his group, and his traveling companions were unimpressed by the puny, polluted river.

“It didn’t have the wonder I anticipated,” he said. “It’s small, it’s low, it’s brown, and it’s unrecognizable from what we might imagine the great River Jordan to be.”

As a Christian, Kelling felt “a strange sense of responsibility” for the state of the river. “You think we should have been the ones protecting this resource.”

Now an Anglican missionary serving in Jordan with his wife, Fiona, Kelling hopes to work with EcoPeace, a local environmental NGO, to bring the Jordan’s plight to his community’s attention. “A lot of people locally don’t even know what state [the river] is in,” he said. But between political turmoil, the refugee crisis, and other local conflicts, Christians living in the Holy Land have many things vying for their attention.

Before the 1960s, the Jordan looked much like it did at the time of Christ. Its annual flow hovered around 1.3 billion cubic meters. “It used to be a powerful river,” said Theodore Varaklas, a tour guide based in Jerusalem. “It was dangerous to cross.” Today, the Jordan’s waters have been reduced to 20 to 30 million cubic meters—a mere trickle of their former flow. The river is now so narrow that in some places you can hop from one bank to the other.

It is an exercise in cognitive dissonance to stand on this river’s polluted shores and believe that it is the Jordan referenced 186 times in Scripture. This river, whose banks were once dotted with landmines, is where the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land (Josh. 3:1–17). This river, which has lost half of its biodiversity since 1950, is where Elijah and Elisha walked over the parted waters (2 Kings 2:7–8). This river, now polluted with raw sewage, is where Christ was baptized by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:13–17). Prince Louis of Cambridge was recently christened in water from this river—but the water had to be carefully cleaned and sterilized before being used in the royal ceremony, as fecal coliforms, chemicals, and other pollutants are commonly found.

Varaklas, who estimates he has toured 15,000 people through the Holy Land since 1992, was baptized in the Jordan as a child, before the river was closed off during the Six-Day War in 1967. Control of water resources factored heavily in the war, and the resulting displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees exploded Jordan’s population from 450,000 in 1947 to 2 million in 1975. This population increase led to greater reliance on irrigated agriculture in the Lower Jordan River Basin, putting further strain on the river itself. Almost all of the Jordan’s waters (96%) are currently being diverted for human use.

Today, the nation’s population is around 9.5 million, and it is yet again bursting with refugees—this time from Syria and Iraq. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that Jordan has “the second highest share of refugees compared to its population in the world, 89 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants.” It is second only to Lebanon, which has 173 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants. Like Kelling and his family (and 83 percent of Jordan’s population), many of these refugees live in the basin, where the water shortage is severe.

This shortage is expected to worsen. The International Water Management Institute says that while water projects in the lower basin have historically been funded by local governments and international aid, these funding sources will not be sustainable long-term. Climate change and increasing aridity are predicted to further exacerbate the valley’s fragile condition, and humans aren’t the only ones relying on the river. The valley provides a vital stopping point for 500 million migrating birds, many of whom are endangered. The river was also once a critical water source for the Dead Sea, but thanks to the diminished flow, the Dead Sea’s water levels are also sinking every year.

Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace’s Israeli director, said in a Yale 360 article that the only thing keeping the river from drying up altogether “has been the agricultural runoff, raw human sewage, diverted saline spring water, and contaminated wastes from fish farms that have been pumped into it.” Recognizing the tremendous influence that congregations can have on their local communities, EcoPeace recently launched an initiative to recruit pastors and other faith leaders in raising awareness about the river’s health. Eco-
Peace gets weekly visits from both local and international church tour groups, where staff introduce the Jordan’s crisis and what can be done about it.

Kelling wants EcoPeace to help him show local Christians the theological reasons for creation care. Ideally, he said, this will “lead to work at a diocesan level that helps to restore God’s creation—specifically the biblical rivers of the region—with a renewed understanding of our role as stewards of it.” He also sees the Jordan’s revival as a potential peace-builder.

Restoring the Jordan will not be easy. “Deep in our hearts, we want this,” Varaklas said. “But it is a very sensitive issue.” The Jordan’s health is tied up in a tangled web of ethnic conflict, ecological disaster, and political strife.

George Kopti, an Anglican priest in Amman, said that many local Christians are refugees, and some are so poor that they “are more concerned about where they are going to find dinner tonight” than restoring the Jordan.

But Chris Naylor, executive director of A Rocha International, recalls seeing similar circumstances when he and his family began their work in nearby Lebanon in the 1990s, shortly after the Lebanese Civil War. Like in the river basin, residents had witnessed “the environmental issues becoming way more severe” during times of war
and upheaval.

As Naylor began his work as a science teacher and chaplain at a local Christian school, he was drawn to a nearby wetland called Ammiq. “It was just down the road from where we lived, and it was once the largest, most important wetland in the country,” he said. “But during the [war] years, it had become trashed. It had been ignored. It had been abused in all sorts of different ways, and the conservation community wasn’t really sure it was worth preserving.”

Meanwhile, the various religious and ethnic groups in Naylor’s village were still nursing deep wounds from the war, and tension was high.

Naylor began utilizing his scientific expertise and pull in the community to organize a massive effort to restore Ammiq to its former glory. As Naylor witnessed the wetland come back to life—and the community come together to save it—he began to recognize creation care as a means not only of restoring the world but of sharing the gospel. “It was a shift in our understanding of what mission meant,” he said, “from being in a very traditional, Christian education context to being a Christian missionary who was saving a marsh as well as saving the people.” Today, Ammiq is a thriving wetland and home to a popular eco-restaurant that is bustling with tourists of all stripes. The wetland was recognized as part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2005.

Ammiq’s story provides hope for the Jordan, where some positive changes can already be seen. In 2015, new sewage treatment plants were built in Jordan and Israel, a few years after clean water was released into the Jordan for the first time in decades. EcoPeace plans to restore the floodplains, to expand nature preserves, and to build eco-parks
aimed at educating visitors about the valley’s ecosystem.

Philip Odeh Madanat, a Jordanian current affairs analyst, said that local evangelicals have less concern about the river because they use it less. “Unlike other Christian denominations in Jordan,” he said, “evangelicals do not deem the Jordan River’s water itself as sacred; thus pollution does not entail religious concern.” In contrast, to local Catholic and Orthodox believers the Jordan’s polluted waters are sacred and play an important role in church feast days and sacraments. He notes that some Protestants opt to perform their baptisms in a nearby pool instead of in the polluted Jordan itself.

Still, Kopti sees theological reasons to remind his parishioners to care for creation. “I preach about the creation and water and earth,” he said. “If you love God, you love creation.” He sees a growing awareness in Jordan about water pollution. In 2015, Al-Maghtas, the Jordanian side of the purported baptism site of Christ, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Naylor said the incarnation reminds us why we should care about water pollution. In Christ, God “became 70 percent water,” he said. “This imbues water with extraordinary importance.”

He points to Romans 8 as the signpost of hope for all of creation. “It talks about the earth, that was subjected to frustration, being restored,” he said. “This creation is going to be restored and it’s going to thrive. And that is the integrated, complete gospel.”

Elyse Durham is a writer in Detroit.

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